Förster energy transfer theory as reflected in the structures of photosynthetic light-harvesting systems

Chemphyschem. 2011 Feb 25;12(3):518-31. doi: 10.1002/cphc.201000944.


Förster’s theory of resonant energy transfer underlies a fundamental process in nature, namely the harvesting of sunlight by photosynthetic life forms. The theoretical framework developed by Förster and others describes how electronic excitation migrates in the photosynthetic apparatus of plants, algae, and bacteria from light absorbing pigments to reaction centers where light energy is utilized for the eventual conversion into chemical energy. The demand for highest possible efficiency of light harvesting appears to have shaped the evolution of photosynthetic species from bacteria to plants which, despite a great variation in architecture, display common structural themes founded on the quantum physics of energy transfer as described first by Förster. Herein, Förster’s theory of excitation transfer is summarized, including recent extensions, and the relevance of the theory to photosynthetic systems as evolved in purple bacteria, cyanobacteria, and plants is demonstrated. Förster’s energy transfer formula, as used widely today in many fields of science, is also derived.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cyanobacteria / enzymology
  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer / methods*
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes / chemistry*
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Plants / enzymology


  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes